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Journey to impact: Florence District fosters stronger clergy, lay leadership

By Jessica Connor

FLORENCE — Better leaders will make better, stronger disciples — and more of them.

That s the idea behind a new initiative in the S.C. Conference s Florence District.  The conference and district have teamed up to launch a spiritual leadership program that will help churches revitalize and glorify God to their fullest potential. Called Journey to Impact, the two-year program begins by fostering leadership among seven pastors representing 11 congregations. After six months, the program extends to newly created lay leader Impact Teams in their churches.

Ultimately, organizers hope the leadership program will renew and revive congregational life, provide more opportunity for clergy effectiveness and help churches be better equipped and connected to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

What they wanted was an intentional effort to develop strong pastoral leadership in the church,  said Rev. Millie Nelson, congregational specialist for the Florence District who is helping manage the initiative. The best way we can do that is by providing encouragement, empowerment and support. 

Journey to Impact is the brainchild of Florence District Superintendent the Rev. James Friday and the Rev. Ray Litts, pastor of Highland Park United Methodist Church, together with conference leaders Nelson, Director of Connectional Ministries the Rev. Willie Teague and Congregational Specialist the Rev. Jim Arant

It s about how to make church be more vital,  said Arant, who is helping Nelson with Journey to Impact because of his passion for and skills in leadership development. A church that doesn t connect with its community is going to die. We want them to catch God s vision for their church; we want to transform churches. 

That transformative process can be quite different for every church, Arant said “ one might have a gift for music, another for food ministry, another for youth evangelism.

But it s all outward-focused, he said, all about creating disciples and connecting in Christian love.

Intense, personal learning

The clergy, who were hand-selected because of their potential to grow in vitality, meet monthly throughout the two-year journey. They include Litts along with the Revs. Ernest Frierson, Gregg Varner, J.C. Lane, Jerry Gadsden, Joyce Chiles, Michael Arant and Gerald Truluck.

During the first six months, the pastors gather for powerful, covenant-oriented, several-hour meetings that are focused on personal reflection, leadership inventory, didactic analysis, peer coaching and private assignments. The group is currently reading and discussing two books, Bearing Fruit,  by Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Tom Berlin, and Strengths Finder 2.0,  by Tom Rath.

The meetings are intense, beginning with an hour-long devotional with prayer and time for reflection. Participants are encouraged to write down what they learn from God during this time of discernment.

Next is didactic time, where the group spends more than an hour analyzing lessons learned from that month s reading selection.

Then comes lunch and peer coaching, with the full group divided into small circles of four. Here, pastors share their struggles and challenges, taking notes and discussing how they can individually grow. Each peer coaching session builds upon the last.

After peer coaching, the pastors discuss personal assignments, and the day closes with full worship and communion. Nelson said they are prioritizing worship with communion intentionally.

I believe when you are constantly pouring out of yourself into others ¦ you can become empty, so it is important that pastors have a time of worship, as well,  she said. Leaders need to be nurtured, too. 

The day the Advocate visited, Dec. 12, the pastors were on Session Three of the six-session initial program. In three more months, they will be bringing their individual church s Impact Team on board, and they are hard at work identifying seven to nine lay leaders who will serve on that team to help guide the church to a stronger, more God-focused future.

In her devotional Dec. 12, Chiles read from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, reminding her fellow clergy about the importance of catching fish (new disciples and believers) above all.

That s what we need to teach our congregations to do “ let down our nets,  Chiles encouraged her peers.

That s exactly what Journey to Impact is hoping to accomplish.

˜A collective energy

The pastors have high hopes for their journey. Gadsden said he is involved with Journey to Impact because, after 20 years in the ministry, he thinks now is a good time to reflect on things he is doing in the church and ways he can help his congregation move forward in Christian impact.

I want to learn more about myself so I can be not the leader I want to be, but the leader God wants me to be,  Gadsden said.

Lane hopes the journey brings about a revitalization of some of the principles upon which his church stands. While his church is highly active in community outreach, Lane wants to see it move to the next level and be more fruitful from within.

We want to do more, to make disciples for Jesus Christ who know God is the savior through Jesus Christ,  Lane said, pointing out that stronger leadership can help them do this more effectively. To be a fruitful people, we need to be constantly fertilized, constantly strengthened. 

Like Lane, Chiles said her congregation is already quite vital. So for her, what is key is developing a core vision that is so obvious people can t miss it: ˆ I want them to have a vision so plain that I can articulate it (immediately). 

Nelson said she can already see the journey coming together.

This is our third session and fourth meeting, and I can see the synergy,  Nelson said. You get some highly effective people together, and they create a collective energy. ¦ I can feel it happening. We re all connecting, becoming more open and being real with each other. 

Out of busy-ness, light

Friday said it s all about looking through the lens of God s eyes “ by delving deeper, by discerning through Journey to Impact, pastors can go to the eye doctor  and adjust that lens.

Sometimes, we get so busy that we forget the people,  Friday noted. The people engage in the vision with the pastor, share it in the community. 

Truluck agreed, saying pastors and their flock frequently need to step back, look at where they are and make sure they are doing the things God is calling them to do.

We get so busy doing things that have to be done that we kind of get lost in it,  Truluck said.

Lane said it all comes down to the so that  “ we are doing X so that  Y. If we can focus on the main reason behind why we are doing what we are doing, which is so that  we can make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world, then we won t get lost along the way.

We have to ask ourselves, ˜Are all these things being tied together so we can bring about the transformation of the world, or are we just being busy?  Lane asked the group.

Jim Arant agreed, noting the phrase so that  appears in Scripture 1,306 times (800 times in the New Testamen
t alone).

And it s not just the busy-ness of life that can get in the way, Friday said. Sometimes we can get so caught up in race and gender and age and other circumstances that we sometimes miss those golden moments  God gives us.

But God is working the vision,  Friday said “ we just need to recognize that vision and run with it.

And the moment that vision catches, Rev. Michael Arant said, Get out of the way. 

All about the impact

The pastors have three more months of their initial journey before their Impact Teams are brought in. Then those teams will receive training “ either during an intensive weekend or spread out through several meetings “ even as the next phase of monthly pastor meetings continue.

The crux: No matter what their church s vision is revealed to be, no matter how they revitalize, all involved know their congregations are being well served by Journey to Impact. They are journeying to make an impact, and they are resting safe in the assurance that with God at the heart, they can t fail.

When God gives you the vision, you don t have to worry about the battles,  Lane reminded the group. God will fight the battles. 

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